Heartwarming or Heart-Wrenching?: The Portrayal of PWDs in the Media

Hello, readers,

As promised, I have returned with a brand-new post for your reading, commenting, and debating pleasure. More than that, it is my twenty-eighth birthday. I intend to use today to celebrate not only a new year, but also my new work and hopefully, changing life. However, as I wrote last week, it does continue to disturb me that many PWDs have a very difficult time changing their lives and images, particularly the public perceptions of them.

One of the most common and prevalent perceptions, and the one that arguably disturbs me the most, is the one we can find in the media. Now, we’ve already discussed this a little bit, such as in the post “No More Dead Disabilities,” which discusses the trope in literature, television, and movies where any character with a disability is treated as a spoiled brat, morality pet, or combination of the two. He or she generally exists in the plot of the story, not to be the main character, not to do anything heroic, not to grow and change and develop–but to impart some moral, sometimes spiritual message, and then to either be cured or killed off. As said, that trope disturbs me like you wouldn’t believe. There are also other versions of this same trope, like the one where a character with a disability exists solely to show temporarily able-bodied (TAB) characters that (A) You shouldn’t make fun of “the handicapped” or (B) “The handicapped” are just like everybody else.

Today, though, I’m going to discuss a different treatment of PWDs within literature, television, and movies–again, the media, for short. I’ll call it the Heartwarming Disabled Person (HDP) Trope, where “Disabled Person” is used to reflect the attitudes of the involved TAB persons, from the characters to the authors, directors, and producers.

So, what is HDP, exactly? I’ll define it this way: a trope or situation that occurs when a character with a disability (CWD) exists to tug on the heartstrings of others. This character does not need to be cured or killed off; in fact, that would probably damage their purpose in the story. No, this character exists to live, and possibly to do a little growing and changing, but essentially to show TAB characters “how the other half lives,” how to be more compassionate people, and so forth. At times, this is because the CWD’s disability is quite severe, in which case the portrayal can be downright saccharine–more so than usual. At times, the CWD may have a walk-on role, wherein he or she serves as a temporary Morality Pet. And sometimes, the CWD takes on a starring role in the story, but it comes with stipulations–for example, the character needs to have a “sixth sense” or a savant-like talent. Otherwise, that character is not important.

So, how do you know when you’re dealing with HDP? Let’s take a look at a few examples. Also, remember: I’m not trying to say that a piece of literature, movie, or television special that uses this trope is in itself bad. Some examples are very good, for what they are. I am, instead, trying to say that constantly placing people with disabilities in the role of “heartwarming” and “inspirational” may make other people feel good, but it’s also shortchanging the PWD out of being a real, three-dimensional character. Thus, the trope is pointing out something negative about real life, but we’ll get to that in a minute. On to the examples:

A Christmas Carol. I actually meant to discuss HDP at Christmas, because heartwarming, heart-tugging characters with disabilities tend to populate Christmas specials (and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa specials, I bet, if we had a lot of those–which is a whole other problem)–in droves. Now again, on its own, A Christmas Carol is not a bad story. It’s one of my favorites. And as discussed, Tiny Tim is more a product of his time period and the issues of it than Charles Dickens consciously trying to create a pathetic person (as far as we know. If I die and find out Dickens had other intentions, well, shame on him). However, Tiny Tim is a minor, saintly character. He embodies the stereotype that PWDs are always happy and content. Yes, he is instrumental in Scrooge becoming a better man–but what were the consequences for this innocent child if Scrooge hadn’t changed? Right: he would’ve died! As it is, Tim becomes like Scrooge’s adopted grandson. At the end of the book or movie, we’re not meant to appreciate Tim Cratchit as a round, developed character. We’re meant to go, “Awwww….”

A Dog for Christmas. Yes, another Christmas movie (put out by Hallmark, which I love, but they’re already maligned for being sappy. You’d think they wouldn’t make things worse). Todd, the character with a disability (mild to moderate intellectual) is surprisingly well-written, for his character type. He has a deep interest in animals. He’s compassionate toward animals and humans, though not so much that he comes across as a saint. He disagrees with his parents, largely because they treat him like a child even though he’s in his twenties. But again, his story is meant to be heartwarming. It focuses on Todd’s relationship with a dog he temporarily adopts for Christmas (and names eponymously). Because of this relationship, Todd’s family, especially Dad, warms up. They all become better, more merciful, wiser people–and Todd gets to keep Christmas after all! We’re not meant to focus on Todd learning anything from Christmas, or his family learning to treat him as an adult. We’re not meant to see beyond the classic setup of “a disabled, somewhat alone, young man and his dog.” Join me now: “Awwww…”

Larry. This one is a non-Christmas film that I was forced to watch in high school psychology. It made me so upset, though then I couldn’t have pinpointed why, that I blocked most of it out. The basic premise involves–who else–a man named Larry, in his forties, who has grown up in an institution for the mentally/intellectually disabled. He was not born with those disabilities himself, but now acts as if he has them because he doesn’t know any other environment. The whole movie is about whether Larry should get to move out of that environment and experience the real world, but the way the movie is set up, we’re not meant to cheer him on. We’re meant to study him as he learns to do simple tasks, for which he frequently gets rewarded with candy, and speculate on whether he will succeed outside the institution. Whether he does or not, there’s no character development involved. This movie involves the effort to get viewers to say, “If Larry can live his life and try so hard, what am I complaining about? And look, he really did learn how to walk with ‘long, slow strides!’ Aw!”

Rain Man. No pun intended but, oh, man. I’m not going to go into the premise of this one because it has, whether you agree with this or not, become a “classic.” In fact, Dustin Hoffman has won awards for his portrayal of Raymond Babbitt, despite not having disabilities himself, which brings up a whole set of other issues. Anyway… Charlie Babbitt gets his brother Raymond out of the institution in which he lives, and they embark on what we think might be a brotherly relationship. But we learn Charlie is just using Raymond’s talents for counting and remembering to further his own gambling hobby. The writers do focus on some aspects of Charlie having a new brother he never knew before, but it’s mostly about how frustrating Raymond’s behavior is for Charlie, which paints Raymond in a negative light. And when Raymond is finally seen positively, he becomes a victim of HDP, by showing Charlie it was wrong to treat him like he did, and that it’s nice to have a brother. Audience: Awwww…

Flowers for Algernon. This one, I just plain can’t stand. It’s not because main character Charlie doesn’t change. He does. Thanks to an experimental operation, Charlie, who has a severe intellectual disability, does develop a genius IQ. But it’s temporary, and the further he eventually slides back into disability, the more pity we’re meant to feel. Just take a look at his misspelled journal entries, where he asks someone to please feed Algernon for him (a test mouse he’s befriended, who will also soon lose his intelligence, having gone through a version of the same surgery). I would argue that we as an audience are even meant to feel warm and fuzzy, and proud of Charlie’s “bravery,” when he decides he must go into a state institution to live the rest of his life. Here, the “Awwww” factor is actually coupled with a, “Thank God that’s not me,” plus the whole “If he can do it, so can I” thing.

Heidi. Klara Sessaman uses a wheelchair and has since she contracted a spine-damaging illness (some versions, like the Shirley Temple film, replace this and say she hurt her back in a fall). Klara doesn’t develop much as a character, but she does learn to walk again, and shows us that we too can overcome the disabilities in our lives. You know what’s coming…

Jimmy. (By the way, why are so many of these works somehow named after the CWD? Is it that directors and producers think, “If we stick a disability on this person, viewers will just have to watch, so don’t bother being creative with the title because it’s not about the character’s journey anyway”?) This one is based on a novel by Robert Whitlow. The producers, including Whitlow himself, do get a little creative, in that Jimmy gets to testify at a drug dealer’s trial–but that’s because Jimmy has the sixth sense of being able to remember everything he hears. As a bonus, he also sees and communicates with angels, whom he calls “Watchers.” A big deal is made of Jimmy’s almost psychic abilities, to the point that one wonders, if this character weren’t psychic, would he even be here? As to the HDP factor: Jimmy is seen as inspirational, not because he helped put away drug dealers, but because he lives his life, always smiling, and even overcomes his fear of water so he can be baptized! Audience, that’s your cue…

Had enough? Yeah, me, too.

So I gotta ask myself: why does the media continue to portray characters with disabilities this way? Why can’t characters with disabilities be normal people, with normal problems, living normal lives? I have a theory. It’s not a pleasant one, but it has to be said. We’re scared of people with disabilities, folks. And we alleviate that fear by saying, “Well, at least they can inspire us and make us feel good.” Thus, we create fictional characters–safe alternatives to real PWDs–in order to serve our own purposes. I’d also like to add that I personally think this is why we don’t see as many representations of female PWDs in books and movies like the ones I just talked about. (Notice that only one featured a girl with a disability, and she wasn’t even the “star.”) My theory is that for some reason, the media moguls out there think it’s even more heart-tugging when a boy–the supposed “stronger” sex–becomes disabled, and thus “overcomes.” It’s like, why do this to girls, because they’re more fragile anyway? Which aside from being anti-disability, is really anti-feminist when you think about it.

Like many issues pertaining to disability, this one is going to be quite difficult to change, especially since most of us don’t have an “in” with famous authors or movie producers/directors. But we can help that change begin. How? By educating ourselves and our children about real PWDs (and that includes interacting naturally with them in public). We can petition our local governmental bodies to make more places accessible so that PWDs can go out in public like everybody else. We can use the inspiration we feel from knowing, watching, or reading about PWDs to raise awareness, not of their inspirational capabilities, but of their whole selves. Some of us might even try writing our own stories about real, dynamic people with disabilities. There’s a lot we can do, folks, so let’s go out there and do it. Our hearts, and theirs, will thank us.

Come back next week for a post entitled: What I Hate About You: Hate Crimes and People with Disabilities




  1. galacticexplorer · January 7, 2014

    Honestly, you know why I think there are almost no women portrayed in media with disabilities? Because disabilities are not considered attractive and women CANNOT be portrayed in media in any positive role if they are not completely generically attractive. Ever. It is much more acceptable for there to be a man in a story that the audience does not want to bang, but a woman? Nope, she has to be perfect-looking and sassy and kick-ass all the time, with her makeup on and her hair looking tastefully messed up, which doesn’t fit with the HDP trope, so therefore it almost never exists. Thoughts?

    • independencechick · January 7, 2014

      Absolutely. Which again, leads to the whole anti-disability/anti-feminism thing. I never realized until now how much they went together. I always thought I’d hit a real double whammy, being in two minorities at one time, but I had no idea how deep that could go. Which is why I’m trying to break down the stereotype personally–and which is why there needs to be more effort to make women with disabilities feel attractive. Because they are attractive! Plus, they are smart, and in their own way, they kick rear. I’m with you, though: show me one “classically” beautiful character with a disability. Show me EVEN ONE. (Klara Sessaman is a pretty cute kid in the film adaptations, but she’s also a spoiled brat there, so there you have it).

      • galacticexplorer · January 7, 2014

        I agree, women with disabilities can be attractive and kick ass (just like they can also be not attractive and not kick ass because PWDs have all the same variation of non-PWDs). But there is such pressure for women, especially in the media, to be superficially “perfect” meaning they must look perfect, they can’t have as wide of a range of character flaws and, apparently, they can’t be disabled. Bah. We make the world look so boring and one-dimensional in media sometimes.

      • galacticexplorer · January 7, 2014

        Oh! And on another note, your mention about people fearing those with disabilities rather resonated with me… particularly in regards to those with intellectual or behavioral differences. I mean, I know it is somewhat instinctual for us to feel wary around anyone who acts well outside the norm. This is to be expected, as it is a survival trait to lead us to be cautious of sick or dangerous members of the group. However, it is quite unnecessary in the situation of a person with a disability, and nothing that a little education about disabilities wouldn’t fix. And yet, this is just not a national priority, as far as I can tell.

        I remember being at a gymnastics summer camp when I was a kid, and there was another girl there who was probably autistic (not that I knew the label at the time). I felt so horrible for how the other girls treated her. The other girls would say nasty things about her among each other while she was right nearby, as if she couldn’t hear (I think most of the time she wasn’t actually listening but still…). They would make up stories about her harassing people that I was almost certain were false. They would make fun of her way of talking for being broken and slurring. And they were terrified of her. They told me so. And I said “well, I’m not afraid of her; she’s just another kid… it’s not that scary” so they told me to be the one to stand near her whenever we had to cue up because they didn’t want to be near her. I agreed, and whenever I did I’d smile and say hi and she would say hi and I just couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Sure, she was sometimes out of control and she was certainly different, but hell, so were some of the neuro-typical kids, and I liked her a lot better than I liked a lot of them. I was glad that, for the most part, she didn’t seem to notice what the other kids were saying about her… she was usually caught up in whatever she was doing. But once in a while I’d hear her say “guys? Guys why are you all scared of me?” and it would just break my heart. So I always made a point to say hi and stand near her in line cuz hey, she’s just another kid.

  2. independencechick · January 8, 2014

    No, it’s not a national priority, which is disheartening. The way your gymnastics classmates treated that girl is horrific. You could argue that kids don’t know better–I was in elementary classes with a couple kids who would throw tantrums because of unnamed behavior problems. We would laugh because we thought it was funny. But that was wrong. Plus, what you describe goes well beyond kids being kids and directly into bullying territory.

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